Loretta Lynn at Bass Performance Hall, 8/8/14
Courtesy the artist
Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth
Friday, August 8, 2014
It's safe to say that the golden age of country music is long over, and we've lost so many formative artists in the last several years. Based on the current state of country, it's clear that fans are in dire need of a history lesson from the people who made it great. So when someone like Loretta Lynn comes into town, you get your ass in the car, you drive to Fort Worth, and you appreciate a country music history lesson in the form of some of the genre's best written songs.
If there is anyone who can truly be classified as country, it's Lo-retta. And I don't mean Loretta, like a proper English speaker would say; I mean Lo-retta, like her fanbase and her family would call her. This year marks Lynn's 50th as a recording artist, and there was no more fitting celebration of her life's work than Saturday night's show at the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth.
After a short performance from Lynn's daughters to open the night, Lynn unceremoniously took the stage. Dressed in a sparkling purple dress that made her look like a country-fried Glinda the Good Witch, the Coal Miner's Daughter walked out on the stage with the grace and gravitas you almost expect from a legend of this stature. From the moment she took the stage, the only impression was simple: Loretta Lynn is still a badass.
Lynn opened the night with "They Don't Make 'Em Like My Daddy Anymore," a No. 1 track released in 1974 that any single woman can surely relate to. Soon after the she was finished, a stagehand brought out a chair for Lynn to sit in. At first thought, I just assumed that the 82-year-old singer wasn't quite spry enough to stand for an entire 90-minute performance.
Alas, I was wrong. Lynn had fallen off the bus as she made her way into Bass Hall that night, something that would have caused most performers of any age to cancel the show. But Lynn isn't that kind of performer, and she surely didn't want to disappoint the fans that packed the sold-out house. So she took to a chair, which only limited her physically. Otherwise, she was full of her usual exuberance and fire. For that, we were all grateful.
Despite the chair, Lynn's vocals were ever powerful. "You're Lookin' At Country," "Fist City," and "You Ain't Woman Enough" sounded much like they did when they were first recorded. I spent the two days prior to the show immersed in Lynn's songs, and I can assure you that her vocal quality has not degraded over the last five decade. If anything, the rich quiver that we all love so much has gotten stronger, like a rich patina on good leather or, more accurately, the complex flavors of an aged Kentucky bourbon.
Lynn's stories about her life on the road, family and 50 years in the business were interspersed through the evening, all delivered in her characteristic drawl. According to Lynn, her grandson is "meaner'n a snake," and whenever anyone brings up the falling-off-the-bus incident, she repeatedly assures the crowd that she hadn't had a drop to drink. When her band got too mouthy, Lynn wasn't afraid to tell them to shut up. After all those years of kicking ass, life has not tamed Loretta Lynn.
In a testament to Lynn's story telling skills, the entire audience was rapt while listening to her describe being in Dallas on the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Lynn was scheduled to play the long-gone Panther Hall in Dallas, but the show was canceled after the president was shot. "That was sure a sad day," she said, before moving into "Dear Uncle Sam," a song she penned during Vietnam to express how much she hated war.
People, even her fans, tend to forget how much of a trailblazer Lynn really was. As I sat and listened, it was difficult to imagine that this was the same woman who was married to a coal miner at 13 and had just about raised two children before ever inking her first record deal. The same woman who is widely considered to be one of the greatest American songwriters and a transformative figure in country music. She sang about war, bad marriages, birth control and alcoholism when everyone else was writing happy-go-lucky tracks or sappy love songs, especially the women in her genre.
I was a little shocked that "One On the Way" and "The Pill" made it into the night's setlist when other favorites were left off, but why should I have been? Lynn has never shied away from covering tough and controversial topics, even when they haven't always been popular. Everyone enjoyed the songs and clapped along, but I couldn't help but notice the irony. Lynn was playing a song that championed access to family planning services in the big middle of a state that has done their damnedest to make sure that people don't have access to them. Selfishly, I'd like to think that this was her show of solidarity for Texas women.
With a cover of "She's Got You," Lynn cemented her place as the only living person on earth who should be covering Patsy Cline songs. She's the only one who has the vocal talent to give these tracks their full due, and that was especially true on Saturday night. If you didn't get chills during her performance of "She's Got You," you might already have ice in your veins.
As men increasingly dominate the charts and female artists fight back against a host of harmful stereotypes, figures like Loretta Lynn indicate that everything will ultimately be just fine. With influence like Loretta, the likes of Kacey Musgrave, Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert are going to be just fine. It did, however, make me think that these women could take a little advice from Loretta and get their male contemporaries back in line. Think about what she did with Conway, y'all.
The only shame is that fans didn't get to hear much of Lynn's later work. There were no tracks from Van Lear Rose, her critically-acclaimed 2004 album produced by Jack White, other than an adapted performance of "I Miss Being Mrs." performed by her son-in-law Philip. I have no doubt that fans were there to hear Lynn's oldest work, but they were missing out; Loretta Lynn never stopped making great music.
Of course, Lynn closed the night with "Coal Miner's Daughter," her most well-known track and the title of her first biography, Oscar nominated film, and at this point, her identity. But we must remember that Lynn is much more than just the daughter of a coal miner - she is a songstress, a wildly talented writer, and most importantly, a pioneer in the truest sense of the word.